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Country in Focus: Ethiopia

Population GDP/Capita USD Capital City 2018 XpA Scores
109,225,000 772 Addis Ababa Freedom of Expression: 0.27
ICCPR ratified 1993 Ethiopia was an XpA Advancer over each of our time periods (2017-2018, 2015-2018, 2013-2018, 2008-2018). In 2018, Ethiopia sits at the top of the 4th quartile. Civic Space: 0.16
Constitution of Ethiopia 1994
CHAPTER THREE, PART TWO, ARTICLE 29, RIGHT OF THOUGHT, OPINION AND EXPRESSION1. Everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference.
2. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression without any interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice.
3. Freedom of the press and other mass media and freedom of artistic creativity is guaranteed. Freedom of the press shall specifically include the following elements:
a) Prohibition of any form of censorship.
b) Access to information of public interest.
4. In the interest of the free flow of information, ideas and opinions which are essential to the functioning of a democratic order, the press shall, as an institution, enjoy legal protection to ensure its operational independence and its capacity to entertain diverse opinions.
5. Any media financed by or under the control of the State shall be operated in a manner ensuring its capacity to entertain diversity in the expression of opinion.
6. These rights can be limited only through laws which are guided by the principle that freedom of expression and information cannot be limited on account of the content or effect of the point of view expressed. Legal limitations can be laid down in order to protect the well-being of the youth, and the honour and reputation of individuals. Any propaganda for war as well as the public expression of opinion intended to injure human dignity shall be prohibited by law.
7. Any citizen who violates any legal limitations on the exercise of these rights may be held liable under the law.
Digital: 0.21
Media: 0.23
Protection: 0.37
Transparency: 0.38

In 2018, a longstanding protest movement paralysed Ethiopia and led to a change in leadership. The government released imprisoned journalists and, by December, there were no journalists in Ethiopian prisons – for the first time since 2004.[1]

Street protests created a moment of opening and transformation, but those changes are precarious without institutional consolidation and structural changes to address the country’s internal conflicts and inequality.

Figure 9:

Challenges remain. Achieving accountability for historic abuses and creating genuine political plurality may prove difficult, further hindered by a lack of independent institutions. Intercommunal violence related to political, ethnic, border, and land issues continued in locations across the country in 2018, displacing at least a million people.[2]

Nationwide unrest and ethnic tension

In a context of nationwide unrest and ethnic tensions, ethnically motivated mass evictions, and security forces frequently committing murders, the atmosphere in Ethiopia has been spiralling into crisis for years, but few predicted the crisis leading to a democratic opening.

The ruling party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has ruled Ethiopia since 1991, with its ethnically based affiliate parties holding all 547 seats in parliament.

In 2015, after the EPRDF won a national election, protests erupted again – this time with more coordinated activism and demands for government action. Again, the protests were met with violence, repression, arrests, and sham trials.

Oromos (the largest of Ethiopia’s roughly 80 ethnic groups) and youth (at least 70% of the population is below the age of 30) [3] have often led protests in Ethiopia.

Protests bring the country to a standstill

The protests spread into new parts of the country during 2016, and by 2017 the rift had deepened; in September 2017 alone, more than 700,000 people were displaced from the Somali region due to their ethnic background. Ethnically motivated attacks took place in numerous regions of the country, with the Ethiopian National Defense Force shooting live rounds at civilians and protesters.[4]

In February 2018, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn submitted his resignation to parliament, citing civil unrest and the political crisis in the country and calling for reform. A few days later, a state of emergency was declared.

The government’s initial response was to undertake mass detentions and respond violently to protests. In April 2018, the state of emergency was lifted and Dr Abiy Ahmed appointed Prime Minister.

New hope as prisoners are released and reform looks possible

In the days following the appointment of the new Prime Minister, there were mass releases of prisoners. More than 700 were released, including activists; academics; opposition politicians (such as Andargachew Tsige, who had been sentenced to death on terrorism charges); bloggers (charges were dropped against three of the Zone 9 bloggers); and journalists including Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye.

In April, the government ended a three-month internet shutdown in parts of Ethiopia. In June, it restored access to 264 websites, including those of the Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio and the Oromia Media Network (OMN) – both diaspora media outlets. As of September 2018, all sites previously found to be blocked had been unblocked. In May, the Attorney General lifted the charges against two media outlets, paving the way for OMN to set up office in Ethiopia.[5] The government also eased restrictions on independent media, permitting greater freedom for journalists and a more diverse range of news for consumers.[6]

A Ministry of Peace was created, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed a 50% female cabinet. In June, a Legal and Justice Advisory Council was established to review restrictive laws, including the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terror Proclamation.[7] Though this seemed promising, the new draft law remained highly restrictive on the registration and funding of CSOs, particularly international groups.[8]

A new Minister of Information and Communication was appointed, who met with international CSOs in July to discuss the need to enhance access to information and rural media reach.[9]

Opposition and dissidents are brought to the table

The new Prime Minister toured the country, conducting town-hall meetings and consulting with constituents whose voices had been marginalised. He met with leaders of over 50 opposition parties, and spoke out in favour of a multiparty system with term limits for leadership and respect for human rights and the rule of law.[10]

Jawar Mohammed, an activist branded a terrorist in 2016, returned to Ethiopia from a decade of exile in 2018, planning to support democratic transition and set up his formerly exiled media outfit – the OMN – within the country itself.[11]

In July, the governor of Ethiopia’s Somali region announced the release of thousands of detainees from the Ogaden National Liberation Front, and leaders began to return to the capital after years of exile in Eritrea. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) signed an agreement with the government in August to end hostilities. The OLF was removed from the official list of terrorist groups, and expressed intent to enter mainstream politics by running in elections.

A peace deal was also signed with neighbouring Eritrea in July, making it easier for Ethiopian exiles to return.[12]

The Nobel Peace Prize 2019 was awarded to Abiy Ahmed “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”[13]

Gains and attitudes must be consolidated by laws and institutions

Internet services were shut down by government in the parts of Ethiopia which saw the return of anti-government protest in August.[14]

In September, familiar violence had returned. Clashes between Oromo youth groups and others killed many, and clashes between OLF supporters and local residents led to a all-too-familiar state response. Police arrested more than 3,000 young people and arbitrarily detained over 1,000 in Addis Ababa, including peaceful protesters.[15]

In October, security forces also conducted lethal attacks on protesters in the Tigray and Afar regions.[16]

With general elections looming, the repressive framework of laws governing expression in Ethiopia must be tackled head on, and the gains made must be consolidated.



[1] Freedom House, ‘Ethiopia’, Freedom in the World, 2019, available at

[2] Freedom House, ‘Ethiopia’, Freedom in the World, 2019, available at

[3] Jason Burke, ‘Ethiopia hails its charismatic young leader as a peacemaker’, The Guardian, 15 July 2018, available at

[4] Civicus, 2019 State of Civil Society, available at

[5] ARTICLE 19, Ethiopia: Joint UPR Finds Civic Space Remains Constricted, 21 December 2018, available at

[6] Freedom House, ‘Ethiopia’, Freedom in the World, 2019, available at

[7] Civicus, 2019 State of Civil Society, available at

[8] Civicus, 2019 State of Civil Society, available at

[9] International Media Support, IMS in New International Media Development Partnership, 10 July 2019, available at

[10] Freedom House, Reform in Ethiopia: Turning Promise into Progress, September 2018, available at

[11] Tom Gardner, ‘Jawar Mohammed’s red-carpet return signals Ethiopia’s political sea change’, The Guardian, 20 August 2018, available at

[12] ARTICLE 19, Ethiopia & Eritrea: End to Conflict Must Be First Step to Wider Human Rights Reforms, 12 July 2018, available at

[13] The Nobel Peace Prize 2019, available at

[14] Civicus, 2019 State of Civil Society, available at

[15] Amnesty International, Rights Today, 2019, available at

[16] Civicus, 2019 State of Civil Society, available at